COOPER Cronk discovered life without Melbourne isn’t easy as his starstudded Sydney Roosters suffered a shock opening-round loss yesterday to a resilient Wests Tigers led by a rejuvenated Benji Marshall.
The new-look Roosters, boosted by Cronk and NSW fullback James Tedesco, were expected to steamroll the Tigers. But Ivan Cleary’s men had other ideas.
The Tigers excelled without bigname buy Josh Reynolds, who tore his hamstring while attempting the final kick of Friday’s captain’s run.
Reynolds’ departure opened the door for prodigal son Marshall to make his triumphant return to the Tigers after 1644 days.
The veteran Kiwi was outstanding, controlling proceedings with his pinpoint kicking and passing.
Marshall credited a pre-match text message from former Brisbane and New Zealand coach Wayne Bennett for helping him overcome his nerves.
“I got a nice message from the big fella, which was nice,” an elated Marshall said, post-match. “I sent Wayne a good-luck-for-the-season message and he wrote back today saying: ‘go out there and be the Benji we know at the Tigers and enjoy yourself and play footy’.
“It was great to hear from him because that was the most nervous I’ve been since my debut. It was weird, man. I’ve never been quiet before the game, like I was today.”
In the end, diminutive winger Corey Thompson delivered the decisive play for the Tigers with three minutes remaining.
Thompson stood up his opposite, Daniel Tupou, before leaping into the corner to score a brilliant solo try.
“I did a little stutter to make him (Tupou) lose his feet and I was lucky enough to get over,” Thompson said.
“I was tired in the first half and it went back and forth for a long time. We showed what we’re made of all pre-season and we never doubted ourselves.”
Coach Ivan Cleary praised Thompson’s match-sealing try, saying he epitomised the culture the Tigers are trying to build.
Told about Cleary’s comments, the former Bulldogs flyer said he was just grateful to be back in the NRL after a two-year stint with Widnes in England.
“Ivan has given me a shot to come back and I just wanted to put in during pre-season when I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to sleep in and not show up,” he said. “I forced myself to go there every day and I was lucky enough to get a start.”
Fullback Tuimoala Lolohea capped off the Tigers’ win with a sensational sideline conversion. Lolohea has worked on his goalkicking with premiershipwinning club legend Brett Hodgson.
“I’ve been taught by Hodgo to always think your kick is going in, so I was pretty confident it was going over,” Lolohea said.
“It was cool to get the kick in to win the game and there is no better feeling to start off the season with a win.”
According to Marshall, the Tigers’ calmness under pressure was no fluke.
“In the pre-season Ivan made us practise winning and if you lost anything you got punished for it with running,” he said. “We actually had to practise winning and I thought that helped us at the back end of that game.
“The boys really put in for each other and we gained each other’s respect.”
Marshall was rapt with the win, but he knows the Tigers can’t get carried away, with a date against defending premiers Melbourne next Saturday.
“We’ve got to back it up now,” he said. “If we don’t come out next week and put in the same intensity and attitude, it looks like today was a fluke.
“So come Monday we’ve got to turn it around again.”
Esan Marsters battles with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (above left), and (right) James Tedesco greets his former teammates. Pictures: Phil Hillyard
Corey Thompson scores the matchwinning try for the Tigers against the Roosters at ANZ Stadium. Picture: Phil Hillyard